Willi Holdorf on medal stand
Rein Aun of the Soviet Union (silver) Willi Holdorf of Germany (gold) and Hans-Joachim Walde of Germany (bronze)

To be honest, he looked more like an accountant than a decathlete. He had thinning hair and sloping shoulders, and wasn’t dominant in any of the ten events. And yet, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Willi Holdorf of Germany broke the US stranglehold on the decathlon to be the first non-American to win the prestigious event since 1928.

According to UPI, when the 24-year old student was asked by the press how it felt to be the “World’s Greatest Athlete”, Holdorf replied “‘Nicht ich, nicht ich’, vigourously shaking his head when the question of how it felt to be regarded the greatest of them all wad put to him. In slow, deliberate English, he conveyed the idea that he did not think of himself as No. 1, but genuinely believed (Bob) Hayes was the all-round best even though the speedy Floridian never even competed in the decathlon.”

While decathletes like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias had created an American stranglehold on this ten-discipline event of running, jumping and throwing, the overwhelming favorite to win gold in 1964 was the Asian Iron Man from Taiwan, C. K. Yang. Yang barely lost to his close friend and UCLA teammate at the 1960 Rome Olympic. The fight, they said, would be for silver. As it turns out, Holdorf won gold, while his German teammate, Hans-Joachim Walde took silver, and a third German finished sixth – an amazing result.

Willi Holdorf_The Olympic Century
Willi Holdorf in the decathlon high jump, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Highly publicized changes to the decathlon rules prior to the Tokyo Olympics resulted in fewer points assessed to decathletes who had a specialization that was far superior to others in the field. In other words, if an athlete was dominant in a particular event, prior to 1964, they could get an outsized number of points and take an outsized lead. But that advantage was diminished with the rule change. Fortunately for the German squad, they had a decathlon coach, Friedel Schirmer, who had the philosophy to take advantage – consistency uber alles.

Returning home to Germany as a sickly solider after surviving captivity in the Soviet Union shortly after the end of World War II, Schirmer went on to become a seven-time all Germany champion in the decathlon, representing Germany as the flag bearer in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He placed eighth in those Olympics, but it was his philosophy that had such an impact that Germany would consistently medal in the Olympic decathlon in the years following 1964. Here’s how Carl Posey explained it in the book, The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Every elite decathlete’s score took a dip because of the table revisions, but the least affected was a group of Germans. These men were all coached by Friedel Schirmer, who stressed consistency in every event rather than excellence in one or two. Foremost among his protégés was Willi Holdorf, a balding, 24-year-old physical education student from Leverkusen. Holdorf took the decathlon lead after the first event, the 100-meter dash. He fell back as far as fourth place after the shot put and high jump, while the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Storozhenko surged to the front on the strength of a tremendous put. Holdorf regained the lead after the 400 meters and maintained it through the final five events. The gold medalist’s score of 7,887 points was well short of a record, nevertheless, the Tokyo Games validated Schirmer’s decathlon philosophy. Germans claimed three of the top six spots, and Schirmer-trained athletes would dominate the event for the rest of the decade.

Willi Holdorf after 1500 meter race
Willi Holdorf after the decathlon 1500-meter race, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Service

Sports Illustrated in their November 2, 1964 issue explained that Schirmer had studied up on Soviet and American training techniques and after becoming coach of the German decathlon squad worked them hard in a series of biweekly training and competitive sessions, gearing them for Tokyo. In the end, as is the case in many decathlons, it came down to the tenth and final event, the 1500-meter race. Like Johnson in 1960, Holdorf did not need to win, but he needed to do well enough to maintain his point lead.

In Tokyo, Holdorf took an early lead and held it, though as the exhausting 1,500-meter run, the final event, began, three men were still close enough to beat him. Particularly dangerous were Russia’s Rein Aun and America’s Paul Herman, both of whom could run much faster 1,500s than the German. “I knew that I could win if I could stay within 60 meters of Aun and 100 meters of Herman,” said Holdorf, a tall, balding blond who is built like a wedge of custard pie standing on its point. Aun took an immediate lead, with Herman in desperate pursuit and Holdorf gradually falling farther and farther behind. But at the finish Holdorf, tottering half-conscious over the line, was close enough to salvage victory from Aun by the narrow margin of 45 points.

Sidd Finch
From April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated

I was vulnerable.

My favorite team in sports, The New York Mets, were actually up and coming, after 13 years of supreme suckiness. Hope springs eternal, but it was especially true for Mets fans in April of 1985.

And when Sports Illustrated came out with the story, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch”, I was ecstatic. Really, the Mets have a prospect who can throw a fastball 168 mph (270 kmh)? He wore one shoe, he played the French horn – well these eccentricities were proof that it had to be true. After all, there were pictures of him, and his locker was between those of George Foster and Darryl Strawberry. After 13 years in the wasteland, our savior had come!

George Plimpton wrote the piece that set off a media firestorm. TV news crews were sent to Florida to interview the mystery pitcher on the Mets. But no one could find him. And then two weeks later (remember, this is pre-social media), New York Mets fans woke up.

April Fools.

Writing an April Fools story is walking a fine line between incredulity and credulity. It’s got to be believable enough, and yet outlandish enough to make you go, “Say what?” Here are a few April Fools’ stories regarding the Olympics.

On April 1, 2014, this video was released announcing that skateboarding would be an Olympic sport in 2016. A day later, it was revealed to be a prank. Of course, as we know now, skateboarding is actually one of the five new sports that Tokyo 2020 is recommending for the 2020 Games.

Last year, twelve-time Olympic medalist over five Olympic Games, Dana Torres, announced she was coming out of retirement to compete at the Rio Games. Yes, she was 47. But yes, she was a swimming legend and still in fantastic shape.

Dana Torres Twitter

In April 2008, the UK Telegraph placed their April Fools story so far in the past it had to be true – that the 1900 Olympics in Paris featured a poodle-clipping competition. This story

C K Yang
Subject: Yang Chuan-Kwang. 1960 Olympics. Rome, Italy. Photographer- George Silk Time Life Staff merlin-1140594

They called him the Asian Iron Man, a title befitting the only Asian ever to set a world record in the decathlon, the ten-event, two-day athletic event that is as grueling an athletic competition there is.

As the first non-Westerner to set a world record for the decathlon in 1963, experts pegged C. K. Yang as a heavy favorite to win gold in Tokyo in 1964, and prompted this profile in the August, 1964 edition of the popular magazine, Boy’s Life. In this article, they wrote about Yang’s humble origins, a small, sickly boy. Not mentioned in the article was that he was born in the poorest, most isolated part of mainland Taiwan – Taidong.

So when the arguably greatest athlete in Asian history provides his list of key behaviors for training for championship performance, the readers of Boy’s Life might have taken note:

  • Determination.
  • Discipline yourself.
  • Practice with a purpose.
  • Don’t just run and run, and then go home.
  • Watch people running.
  • Appreciate what your coaches are doing for you.

Let ‘s look at a couple in detail:

Determination. “Want to do it, know that you can do it, then DO IT!”

Yang came up with Nike’s famous marketing phrase years before the company was created…but he knew from experience that being determined is a good part of the battle. When he made the cut to represent Taiwan in the Asian Games in 1954, he was probably going to compete in the broad jump or the high jump. When he went to his country’s training camp in preparation of the Asian Games, he began fiddling with other disciplines. Yang hurldle UCLAHe explained this in detail in this Sports Illustrated article:

Yang’s curiosity and competitive drive moved him to experiment with other events, hitherto strange to him. He set up a bicycle and used it as an impromptu hurdle. He read a Japanese book on hurdling – Yang speaks and reads Japanese fluently because of his schooling under the Japanese occupation – and studied its illustration. “I tried to bring the whole thing together in my mind,” he said, but his coach became irritated because Yang was not concentrating on his jumping. Yang said, “I told him I just can’t jump every day. If I practice hurdling today, maybe tomorrow I can jump more higher.” And I did. I jumped 2 or 3 inches higher.

And as the article continues, Yang did the same for javelin, the discus and the shotput, excelling in this new events to the point where the coach had to say, “How’d you like to try decathlon?”

Appreciate what your coaches are doing for you. Appreciate the fine equipment you have to work with, and then give your best. I came all the way to this country to take advantage of the coaching and equipment available here. Through track I have received an education, and because of this, I have given track everything I have.

Drake and Yang
Yang, and his coach at UCLA, Ducky Drake, to his right

In the Sports Illustrated article, Yang tells this touching story about how people need to have empathy for others who try so hard. He explained to the author of the article, Robert Creamer, that people made fun of him when he was about 15, and he suddenly grew. He was so tall and thin compared to his friends that people derisively nicknamed him “Bamboo”, and laughed at him, which Yang was understandably sensitive to. He told this story about how his baseball coach helped him gain his confidence.

In practice when I throw the ball I was – so funny form, you know? I couldn’t throw hard. The athletes start laughing at me. I was so happy to join them, and I was so embarrassed when they laugh at me. The coach was mad. He bawled them out who laughed, and he said, “if you laugh at people someday he will be much better than you are. You better not laugh at people. You never know. He have a long way to go, and maybe he can learn faster than you and someday laugh at you. Put yourself in that position. Suppose people laugh at you. How do you respond to them? How do you feel?” Said, “think about it.” And they didn’t laugh at me anymore.

From The Seattle Times, October 19, 1964
From The Seattle Times, October 19, 1964

The portrait is sketchy. The image reflects a lack of detail, as well as a dark side of a life that held so much promise.

It’s sometimes frustrating trying to piece together a person’s life on the internet. Toby Gibson was a boxer. He was a legitimate contender for a medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games. He was a husband and a father. He was a lawyer and a deputy prosecutor. He embezzled funds. He committed armed robbery. He served time in prison. And then, one day in March, 1973, he died.

I really don’t know much beyond those milestones in his life.

The picture above accompanied a column by Red Smith. The famed sports writer explained in his article from October 19, 1964, that Gibson was a “highly attractive young sociology student who wants to be a teacher and is always surprised when he knocks somebody out.” No one else was really surprised. Gibson was on a streak, having won 12 straight fights as a lead up to Tokyo, and was favored, along with Joe Frazier, to win gold for the US.

toby-gibson-at-olympic-trials-in-1964
Toby Gibson at the US Olympic Boxing Trials_Sports Illustrated_June 1, 1964

Sports Illustrated cited Gibson as “the most impressive winner” of the US Olympic Boxing Trials, held in May, 1964. The writer described him as “likeable and articulate…a fine boxer and superb puncher.” A professional fight manager was reported to have privately said that Gibson was “the best prospect since Joe Louis.”

In his first bout in the light middleweight class, he made quick work of his Thai opponent, Yot Santhien. Unfortunately, Gibson found himself on the losing end of a controversial judgment in his second fight against Eddie Davis, penalized significantly enough for “ducking” his Ghanian opponent too much. And that was that. No medal.

In the Sports Illustrated article, Gibson was quoted as saying that he didn’t intend to turn pro after the Olympics, that he wanted to be a teacher. As it turns out, he did go pro, but only for five professional fights before entering law school. His hard work not only got him a law degree, but also the distinction of being the first black to be appointed a deputy prosecutor of Spokane County in the state of Washington, according to his obituary in The Seattle Times.

Some time after moving to Seattle to open a law practice in 1977, Gibson got into trouble, and was disbarred. First he was caught misappropriating more than $25,000 of his clients’ trust funds. Then he was convicted of armed robbery and extortion of another law firm in Oakland, and imprisoned for 7 years.

I have searched and searched, but the subtler shades of color between the harsh outlines of his life are hard to fathom, and I am left with a story and a life unfulfilled.

 

NOTE: This article was updated on January 2, 2017